Podcast series aims to shed light on cultural impact of Black Appalachian Music
JOHNSON CITY (Aug. 25, 2021) — A six-part podcast series, “Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music,” is in the works, co-hosted by Dr. Ted Olson, an East Tennessee State University professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies, and Dr. William Turner, a noted scholar on African American communities in Appalachia.
The first two episodes are now available on all popular podcast streaming platforms through the Great Smoky Mountains Association’s “Smoky Mountain Air” podcast.
“Dr. Turner and I agreed to collaborate as co-hosts of ‘Sepia Tones’ because we both thought that Black music, an essential part of Appalachian music, is too often overlooked or misunderstood,” said Olson. “We wanted to encourage more open discussion about the significant roles of Blacks in contributing to the creation of Appalachian music, and we hoped to foster deeper appreciation for the achievements of Black musicians from the region.”
Episode two, titled “Driving (and Fiddling) While Black: Appalachian Music at Home and on the Road,” offers a compelling conversation about past and present experiences of Black performers in rural communities as Olson and Turner welcome Earl White, Larry Kirksey and Kip Lornell.
White, an accomplished fiddler and prominent figure of old-time music and dance, was a founding member of The Green Grass Cloggers. His energetic and rhythmic fiddle style is showcased through his vast repertoire of Appalachian music. White’s music is featured prominently throughout the episode, including a rendition of “Devil in the Strawstack” recorded exclusively for the podcast.
Kirksey, who grew up in the mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky, went on to become a respected NFL coach, leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl victory in 1995. In this episode of “Sepia Tones,” he reflects on his childhood and adolescence, and on the important role music played in his rural Black Appalachian community.
Lornell is a professor of American music and ethnomusicology at George Washington University. He has written many books, articles and essays and was awarded a Grammy for his contribution to Smithsonian Folkways’ “Anthology of American Folk Music.” He studied African American music for many years and has conducted extensive field work in the Appalachian region.
“There is history here, and it needs to be told. People need to know about it,” said Kirksey.
From seeking musical kinship with other Black artists, to finding a life beyond the coal camps of Kentucky, to documenting and preserving the music of mountain communities, each of the three guests in episode two has followed his own unique journey through the rich musical landscape of rural Appalachia and brings an original, captivating perspective to the conversation.
“What Dr. Olson and I have found, not surprisingly to either of us, is how so many of the icons of country music — Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Merle Travis — learned their crafts at the knees of Black artists, relatively unknown musical geniuses like Arnold Shultz, DeFord Bailey, Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, Lesley Riddle, Howard ‘Louie Bluie’ Armstrong, and Linda Martell, among others,” added Turner, who credits Olson among his own music mentors. “Speaking of who’s learned from whom, I have literally become a willing learner in the Dr. Ted Olson school of American string band and country blues music.
“This ETSU professor and raconteur, who plays banjo, harmonica, and guitar and sings, knows more about the subject matter of ‘Sepia Tones’ than anybody in the world.”
“Sepia Tones” is funded through the African American Experience in the Smokies project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is distributed through GSMA’s existing podcast, “Smoky Mountain Air,” and available through Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, and most major streaming services. The second episode can also be found at buzzsprout.com/1026877/8920127.
Episode one features Loyal Jones, Sparky Rucker and James Leva. Future episodes will feature Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, Jack Tottle, Kathy Bullock and Virgil Wood. Episode three will be available in September.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the scientific, historical and interpretive activities of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by providing educational products and services to park visitors. GSMA depends on member support to fulfill its mission of preserving the Smokies for future generations. Membership-driven funding also supports the preservation of more than 90 historic structures throughout the park, as well as the backcountry rangers who protect more than 800 miles of trails. For more information, visit smokiesinformation.org.